IT was an event that rocked the world.
On August 30 and 31, 1997, a visit by Diana – Princess of Wales, to the Ritz Hotel in Paris was to prove a factor in events leading to the horrific car crash in the Pont de l’Alma underpass near the Eiffel Tower that resulted in her death.
Olga Leleka looks at her death and the hotel where the tragic chain of events began.
The evening began normally enough, a 36-year-old woman on a dinner date at Paris’ Ritz Hotel.
Only these were no ordinary dinner companions.
Diana and her companion, millionaire Emad Mohamed “Dodi” Fayed, were at the centre of intense media scrutiny – as was always the case with the then-most photographed woman in the world – but the exact nature of the pair’s relationship meant the level of interest had reached a fever-pitch.
The pair dined in the Imperial Suite of the Ritz hotel, owned by Fayed’s father Mohammed Al-Fayed. It would prove to be the pair’s last supper.
Diana’s new companion had greatly fueled her rift with the royal family and was in the wake of her divorce with Prince Charles.
Little wonder the pair was keen to escape the attention of journalists and the paparazzi.
For this reason Fayed’s driver had left the hotel earlier to distract photographers, while the couple later left at about 12.20 am on August 31 in a black Mercedes-Benz sedan driven by Henri Paul, a security officer at the Ritz hotel.
Paul sped off to avoid the paparazzi pursuing the couple.
That speed and the fact Paul was drunk at the wheel would later be presented as an official factor in the crash. Toxicology screening revealed the level of alcohol in his blood was more than three times the legally permitted limit to drive.
It was lethal combination.
Paul being an unprofessional driver, his level of intoxication and the pursuing paparazzi, would eventually lead to one of the largest outpouring of public grief in British history and would plunge the monarchy into crisis.
The smash reduced the car to little more than a hunk of metal after colliding with a pillar then spiraling into the opposite wall of the tunnel. Pulled still murmuring from the wreck, Diana was delivered with chest and head injuries to the nearest hospital where she died several hours after the crash.
France and the rest of the world awoke to the news this key political figure and cultural symbol had died. Diana was the embodiment of elegance and grace, a woman capable of drawing public attention whatever she did or say.
“But there was an element of use of the paparazzi and photographers in general that Diana used enormously to her advantage. She knew exactly how to do it,” said James Whitaker, a British journalist. Even a few minutes after the car crash five photographers were noticed to be taking close-up pictures of Diana trapped in the car.
“I always believed the press would kill her,” said Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer. More than a decade after the crash Diana still draws publicity with a cluster of documentaries released on the circumstances of her life and death.
It can be that a source of her everlasting popularity lies in the fact it is difficult to conceive such an ordinary death for Diana’s extraordinary personality.
With the passing of time, sectors of society still go on wondering whether her death was just ill fate or because of hidden political motives.
This refusal to rule Diana’s death as nothing more than a tragic accident proves she was more than a divorced wife of the heir to the British throne, but “the people’s princess…and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain, in our hearts and in our memories forever” as Prime Minister Tony Blair defined her.
Despite its association with Diana and Fayed, the Ritz was already as possibly the most prestigious and luxurious hotel in the world and the finest and most expensive in Paris It is referred to by some as the best hotel in Europe and one of the world’s most famous hotels
It is one of “The Leading Hotels of the World”. One of the seven recognized Parisian palace hotels, it is the oldest Ritz Hotel.